Learn more about cultural norms around education and communication (such as eye contact or gender roles) in your students’ cultures. You can ask family liaisons for tips or find resources that compile this information.

More Resources

Making Students and Families Feel Welcome

How Schools Can Support Immigrant Students and Families

Making Students and Families Feel Welcome

Learn how schools can help make all families feel welcome within the school, why these messages matter, and how to build upon immigrant families' experiences and strengths.

These strategies are part of the Colorín Colorado resource guide, How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs.

I know of one teacher who called all families of her students just to say 'I wanted to thank you for entrusting your child to our school. We're happy you're here. I love working with your student.' I heard about the phone call from an older sibling, and it was the first time I'd seen this girl smile in two weeks. Small gestures make a difference.

 — Educator response to a Colorín Colorado survey on how schools are supporting immigrant families


Overview

Download PDF versions:

Schools can use a variety of strategies to get to know immigrant families and let them know they are welcome in the school community. Sharing these messages of support during times of uncertainty can strengthen relationships, make communication and problem-solving more effective, and impact student attendance and family engagement.

Take a look at our ideas below to get started in your setting. For more great ideas, see related strategies on:

Let all families know that they are welcome

Serving Afghan refugee families

If your school is welcoming new refugee families from Afghanistan, please see the following:

Why this matters

The best way to let families know that they are welcome is to tell them. This kind of outreach has always been important for ELL and immigrant families; however, it is even more critical for immigrant families who may:

  • feel unwelcome in the school, early childhood program, or community
  • not know if immigration status impacts the right to attend school or early childhood program, or even enter the building
  • be more likely to keep their children home and avoid educational settings themselves
  • keep their children home due to local immigration enforcement activity
  • come from countries where school records are available to all government agencies.

Expressing support signals that you value their place in your community and take those concerns seriously. It is also an important message to communicate to staff who are serving immigrant students and who may be immigrants themselves or have ties to immigrant relatives/communities.

Tips for getting started

Educators and school/program leaders can communicate this message by:

  • regularly expressing that families are welcome
  • posting welcome signs and messages of support on doors in multiple languages
  • making statements of support available online.

Other kinds of outreach

Schools, districts, and early childhood programs can also share welcoming messages through:

  • parent information meetings
  • phone calls
  • public remarks in the community or local press
  • collaboration with community organizations that have a relationship with families (i.e. houses of worship, community centers, and immigrant rights groups)
  • Public Service Announcements and interviews with local media outlets in families' native languages, especially for communities with low levels of native language literacy.

Related resources

Back to top >

Create a welcoming school environment

Why this matters

The environment of a school or early childhood program has a significant impact on students and families. There are a number of things that educators can do to create a welcoming environment for immigrant students and families.

Tips for getting started

Make families and students feel welcome by:

Removing barriers to engagement

  • ensuring that families are greeted warmly at the front office in their language
  • introducing them to parent liaisons, Family Resource Centers, or other resources
  • helping families understand the U.S. school system
  • providing transportation, meals, and child care for family events
  • identifying specific stressors, such as stimuli that trigger post-traumatic stress

Communicating in families' languages

  • having access to someone who speaks their language
  • making information available in their language and format they prefer
  • teaching staff how to use a language phone line or other services with an interpreter
  • learning how to pronounce student and family names correctly
  • learning a few phrases in families' languages
  • welcoming and using students' home languages in the classroom
  • connecting students with peers, staff, or volunteers who speak their language

Celebrate students' countries and cultures

  • hanging flags of students' home countries
  • displaying artwork, photos, and mementos from students' countries
  • including culturally responsive books in families' home languages in the library and in classrooms (including books by diverse authors who share students' heritage)
  • providing opportunities for students and/or families to share songs and stories from their country or culture if they feel comfortable doing so
  • being mindful that some students may not wish to share information about their home country, immigration story, or place of birth and others may not remember or know much about it (see more on this topic in our related section on immigrant students' silence)

Engaging the school-wide/district-wide community

  • encouraging students to brainstorm ideas on how to make peers feel welcome
  • encouraging activities that foster students' empathy
  • reminding the community, including all students and adults in the building, of existing policies on bullying, bias, and discrimination
  • taking steps to prevent bullying and addressing bullying incidents when they occur
  • sharing these strategies and ideas with colleagues.

In addition, consider adding immigration status as a form of difference that merits equitable treatment in your classroom. Any time you engage in conversations with students about why it is important not to discriminate against others due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other form of social difference, include immigration status (as is developmentally appropriate). If you have signs in your classroom that name different kinds of bullying or hate speech, include immigration status as well (Gallo, 2018).

Addressing bias

For recommendations on how to discuss and address bias, see the comprehensive resource list we put together following the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

Recommended resources

Resources from Colorín Colorado

Toolkits

News headlines

Recommended videos

Video playlist: Creating a welcoming environment for ELL and immigrant students

Video playlist: Building relationships with ELL and immigrant students

Video: What happened when the students realized the Yemeni flag wasn't on stage

 

Back to top >

Get to know your students and families

Why this matters

One of the most important steps educators can take is to get to know students and families, developing a personal relationship that establishes trust and rapport. It is much easier to address a difficult situation, such as changes in a student's behavior, when you already have a solid relationship.

Tips for getting started

  • Learn more about family backgrounds and strengths by talking with families, cultural liaisons, and ELL/bilingual colleagues.
  • Invite members of the community or local organizations to share their insights.
  • Look for ways to increase the amount of interaction between staff and families.
  • Get into families' neighborhoods by planning events in local venues and home visits.
  • Give students the chance to tell their stories with tips in this Colorín Colorado article.

Recommended resources

Strategies and background information

Books and guides

Student populations

Recommended videos

Video Playlist: Home visits with immigrant students

Video Playlist: Getting to know your ELL and immigrant students

Video: One principal's journey to a refugee camp

More recommended videos: Documentaries

Back to top >

Learn more about special populations of students

Why this matters

It is critical to learn as much as possible about your students' backgrounds and educational experiences, as well as their talents and gifts, as you look for ways to help them succeed. You may also meet students who have unique experiences, strengths, and needs.

Here are some examples of those experiences:

  • Refugee students may have experienced trauma, difficult journeys, and lengthy stays in refugee camps or temporary accommodations with little access to schooling.
  • Students with interrupted education may have little or no schooling, or a patchwork of experiences.
  • Children of migrant farmworkers may have moved frequently around the country following different harvest seasons. They may not have school records from prior schools. They may be living in poverty and particularly vulnerable to events such as natural disasters.
  • Unaccompanied children and youth may have endured long, traumatic, and violent journeys and may be reuniting with family they haven't met or seen for a long time.
  • Students displaced by natural disasters may have gone through traumatic experiences, upheaval, and long separations from immediate family members.
  • Indigenous students from Latin America may mask their Indigenous identity and language; while schools may provide support in Spanish to these students based on their country of origin, Spanish may actually be a second or third language.

Tips for getting started

  • Look for clues about your students' experiences without asking direct questions.
  • Build relationships with students and families.
  • Find out if colleagues such as ESOL teachers, parent liaisons, or community partners have information about students' prior experiences. If so, invite these colleagues to share their insights with staff.
  • Learn more about the context for your students' experiences, such as a civil war that caused them to flee or the conditions that migrants face along particular routes.
  • Keep in mind that some students may be reluctant to share their experiences. See ideas for supportive ways to engage students that don't put them on the spot in our related section and our article on student stories.
  • Keep in mind that refugees and asylees have different kinds of rights in the U.S.; not everyone that used to live in a refugee camp has resettled through the State Department and has access to the rights and privileges that such a process entails.
  • You may also wish to look at students’ schedules and look for ways to reduce the number disruptions and transitions where possible, particularly for newcomers. See our related section on this topic.

Recommended resources

Back to top >

Identify student and family strengths

Why this matters

All students and families have strengths and assets.  Recognizing those strengths can create a foundation on which to build an effective partnership. It is an important shift from a "deficit" approach, in which families and students are defined by their needs and challenges.

Tips for getting started

  • Be sure to highlight student and family strengths and celebrate them publicly and regularly within the entire school/program community. 
  • Look for families' strengths and successes in overcoming and managing their challenges and caring for their children.
  • Ask students and families to describe their skills, interests, and talents, and ask for additional input from colleagues and community partners.
  • Look for ways to do this in the classroom. Encourage teachers to look for students' strengths (using this chart of asset-based language as a starting point), as well as contributions that members of the students' communities have made locally and to American society.

Recommended resources

Recommended Videos

Video: Building upon students' strengths

Video: Getting to know students through parent letters

Video: Our parents value education and their children's teachers

 

 


 

References

See our complete reference list for works cited in this article.

Back to top >

Reprints

You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact info@colorincolorado.org.

Welcoming Afghan Families: Lessons Learned from Austin ISD

Welcoming Afghan Families: Lessons Learned from Austin ISD

Map of Afghanistan

Learn how one school district is currently partnering with the Afghan community and welcoming Afghan families who have been arriving from Afghanistan.

The Austin, TX Independent School District (Austin ISD) is home to more than 21,000 English language learners. While the majority of students are Spanish speakers, students throughout the district speak 116 languages. Austin ISD also serves about 700 refugee students.

Currently, over 300 Afghan students are enrolled in Austin ISD and the district is preparing to welcome nearly 100-200 Afghan families in the coming months following the recent developments in Afghanistan. We spoke to a team from Austin ISD's Multilingual Education Department to learn more about their preparations and lessons learned so far. This team included the following members:

  • David Kauffman, Executive Director for Multilingual Education
  • Salimah Shamsuddin, Refugee Family Support Coordinator
  • A Refugee Family Liaison (This team member is from Afghanistan and asked not to be named.)

You can see additional coverage of Austin's initiatives (both in the school district and locally) to welcome Afghan refugees in the recommended resources below. You can also learn more in our resource section, How Schools Can Partner with Afghan Refugee Families.

Note: ELLs in Texas are now referred to as "emergent bilinguals" based on a recent change in state policy.

Multilingual Education in Austin

Austin ISD has taken some key steps to ensure that educators throughout the district are prepared to serve their diverse student body. In addition to robust bilingual programming, all elementary school teachers are ESL certified, and at the secondary level, all English teachers must be ESL certified. That requirement is also starting to roll out for content areas.

Dr. Kauffman notes, "We really try to build a structure where all of our classes support language learning and our emergent bilinguals. We also have a real emphasis on cultural proficiency and inclusiveness. It's an ongoing priority that we make sure that our teachers and our staff and our schools are culturally proficient and that we're creating inclusive environments where everyone feels welcome and everyone is able to see themselves in the classroom. Those are core things that we want to make sure are always in place."

It's also worth noting that the district has extensive experience resettling students who have been displaced from both domestic and international situations, such as evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and Burmese students from Myanmar.

Refugee Family Support Services Office

The Refugee Family Support Office services include assistance with:

  • Registration and enrollment support
  • Cultural orientation for student and parents
  • Parent/teacher conferences and meetings
  • Crisis intervention
  • Resource mapping and referrals to mental health providers
  • Day-to-day interpretation services — such as assisting families with understanding school forms — for 90 campuses
  • Facilitating campus events targeting refugee families (e.g., Coffee with the Principal, Back to School Night, Know Your Rights events, etc.)
  • Home visits
  • Emergency language support for families and campuses
  • Interpretation for special education meetings

For example, in the case of families arriving from Afghanistan, the Refugee Family Liaison will help families with registration and a cultural orientation. That orientation might include topics such as how lunch works, how schedules work for secondary students, school transportation, and public transportation. The team will also provide crisis supports that are needed.

Ms. Shamsuddin notes, "We work very closely with our licensed mental health professionals and our school counselors to make sure that the students are referred to culturally competent mental health providers that know how to work with refugee families. We emphasize a focus on wellness rather than mental health, which is a more inviting entry into the topic."

In addition, the Refugee Family Liaison makes a point to inform families of their right to an interpreter and the language access resources available in the district, noting, "I always inform parents, 'Don't think because you don't speak the language you can't communicate with your students' teachers. Ask them to provide you with an interpreter.' Then I give them that information."

Ms. Shamsuddin notes that the Refugee Family Liaison's relationship with the families is a key source of trust and communication. "This work is essential to building relationships among families and schools. The liaison's knowledge, skills, and competencies make them an effective advocate for our families and provide the families with the tools and resources they need to be successful."

In addition, community partners are critical and the team has worked extensively to develop those partnerships. According to Ms. Shamsuddin, "Having a strong network of community partners including social services, education, refugee providers, community based organization and advocacy groups allows for interagency collaboration, resource sharing and effective coordinated services."

Professional Development

Ms. Shamsuddin and the Refugee Family Liaison have also prepared a staff training to help educators get more familiar with important facts about Afghanistan and cultural considerations. Some of the points they share include the following:

  • Afghan vs. Afghani: Afghani is the currency in Afghanistan. "Afghan" is the appropriate adjective to use when discussing students or families from Afghanistan.
  • Geography: Afghanistan is located in South Asia. Afghan students are not Arab or from the Middle East.
  • Language: The two primary languages spoken in Afghanistan are Dari and Pashto; in addition, many people speak regional languages that are less common.
  • Eye contact: In Afghan culture, individuals may look away rather than making eye contact; this is not a sign of disrespect but may be interpreted as such by Western educators.

Supporting Afghan Students and Families During This Time

Ms. Shamsuddin and the Refugee Family Liaison also have put a lot of thought in how to help their colleagues effectively partner with families during this time. Some recommendations they share include the following, which are especially helpful to remember as events in Afghanistan continue to develop and the anniversary of 9/11 approaches:

  • Learn how to pronounce students' names correctly.
  • Build relationships with students and families so that you can build trust. This will take time but is essential in order to partner effectively with families.
  • Don't lose sight of Afghan cultural strengths, their pride in their culture, their resilience, the diversity they bring into the school, and the courageous work these Afghans did in their country in spite of numerous dangers.
  • Consider that students and families are hurting. They are going through a traumatic, tumultous period and still have family and friends back home. They're deeply concerned about many different things, and students may have a hard time focusing.
  • Afghan staff are also hurting. It's important for leaders, managers, and colleagues to be empathetic and flexible. It's also critical to recognize that Afghan colleagues face a double challenge of navigating a challenging time personally while being immersed in the trauma that refugee families who are arriving have faced.
  • Students may have experienced trauma; avoid referencing topics that might remind them of that trauma, such as ethnic tension, the Taliban, and women's rights in Afghanistan. If students want to discuss their experiences, listen, but don't ask personal questions. Give them a private space to share more if they wish to and consider whether additional support is needed.
  • Don't put Afghan students on the spot to speak about their experiences or opinions, and give students the chance to leave the class during discussions they find upsetting. This is a deeply painful time for the Afghan community.

On this point, Dr. Kauffman adds, "Our families have no obligation to speak on behalf of an entire population. We can't expect them to inform us about things that as Americans we should probably already know about. The most important thing is ensuring they feel welcome and have a safe space to share their story if and when they choose to."

When asked for any closing thoughts, the Refugee Family Liaison notes that this is a time when compassion is the priority, offering the following advice: "Please learn more about what has happened in Afghanistan. This will help educators be more kind and compassionate towards their students who are coming."

Related Resources

For additional recommendations and cultural considerations, see the following:

Resouces from Austin

How schools can support Afghan students

How to partner with refugee students and families

Reprints

For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.